Supreme Court Expands Right to Sue for Retaliation Under Title VII

Is the fiancé of an employee who has made a sex discrimination charge against her employer protected by the anti-retaliation provisions of the federal anti-discrimination law? Yes, said the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Thompson v. North American Steel decided January 24, 2011.

The case was filed by Eric Thompson, who was terminated three weeks after his bride-to-be Miriam Regalado filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) against their mutual employer, North American Steel (NAS). The lower courts dismissed Thompson’s claim on the ground that Title VII of the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964 "does not permit third party retaliation claims." Reversing those decisions, the Supreme Court held that Thompson could pursue his retaliation claim against NAS because a reasonable worker "might be dissuaded from engaging in protected activity if she knew that her fiancé would be fired."

The Court refused to define how close or attenuated a relationship could be to qualify for a third-party retaliation claim, noting that a "close family member" will almost always be protected from retaliation while a "mere acquaintance" will not. However, it had no difficulty concluding that Thompson fell within the "zone of interests" sought to be protected by the statute, because injuring him was the employer’s alleged means of harming Regalado.

This decision follows the Court’s 2006 decision in Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railway Co. v. White, in which it also interpreted the anti-retaliation guarantees of Title VII very expansively. Employers should accordingly remain particularly careful about taking adverse actions against anyone who has claimed discrimination or harassment in the workplace, as well as those associated with them, given the extremely broad protections the law affords such persons.

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